CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, especially for a city that wants to be world class. Charlotte would join that list of cities to have hosted both Democratic and Republican national conventions. Its hotels and restaurants and streets would be bustling. Its arena would be filled with crowds, greeting the acceptance speech of repeat GOP standard-bearer Donald Trump, guaranteed grabber of headlines (and other things, as the Access Hollywood video attests).
And the world would be watching.
Well, the world is watching, all right, as what was a somewhat grudging but eventually accommodating relationship has deteriorated into sniping and bickering, with a nasty split on the horizon.
As usual, the catalyst for the acrimony was Trump himself.
In truth, the connection with Charlotte was tenuous from the start, as the city found itself nearly alone in bidding for the Republican National Convention about two years ago. Las Vegas kind of, sort of raised its hand, but Charlotte went all in. The business community saw economic opportunity and remembered the more than $150 million it was estimated the 2012 Democratic convention that nominated President Barack Obama for a second term brought in, while the city council approved the move, albeit by a close 6-5 vote.
Vi Lyles, the Democratic mayor of the very blue city, walked a tightrope, as a leader and supporter of the effort who also said she would not give a welcoming speech, as the values voiced by Trump and other GOP leaders did not mirror the city’s own. But hosting the RNC brought recognition from the White House, as Lyles was the only mayor appointed by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Ivanka Trump to the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board of business leaders and politicians. The president and the Charlotte mayor exchanged pleasantries during a Washington meeting a little more than a year ago; RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel praised Lyles early and often.
The event was scheduled to start Aug. 24, with the host committee busy raising $70 million and the arena set to be retooled.
Then COVID-19 happened.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper followed the White House and CDC guidelines and the advice of North Carolina health officials as the state closed down before slowly starting to reopen in phases. Charlotte and North Carolina leaders and the RNC and convention officials, who appointed their own physician consultant to assure safety for attendees, were in the midst of negotiations to determine what a convention under the shadow of COVID-19 would look like when Trump made his wishes — no, demands — known.
No way would he settle for anything other than a full house, with 19,000 filling the arena for his triumphant speech — no masks or social distancing — despite the message the White House was sending in its own guidelines.
Politics, as always, played a part, with Cooper, up for reelection in November, a convenient cudgel the president could use to bash Democrats for being slow to reopen states. Trump’s Memorial Day tweet and subsequent ultimatums raised the stakes, and Republicans ramped up the rhetoric to match his.
The GOP-controlled state Legislature, already picking fights and siding with reopen protesters, introduced legislation to force Cooper’s hand. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Cooper’s Republican opponent in November, cast the governor as hurting businesses recovering from economic upheaval from the shutdown, interesting considering Forest strongly backed an infamous “bathroom” bill that caused concerts and meetings to boycott North Carolina.
Cooper, who currently leads in the polls, and state officials said the plan the RNC offered for testing attendees and sanitizing was vague. He said they weren’t even told how many people to expect. Other Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida and Georgia, sensing an opportunity to cozy up to the president and boost their own electoral chances, expressed interest.
Then the George Floyd video happened.
The protests in Charlotte moved from the streets close to where the convention would take place to the suburbs, with an overzealous response from police on one night triggering investigations and action by the city council to ban Charlotte-Mecklenburg police from purchasing additional chemical agents used to disperse crowds.
If Trump needed law enforcement to clear peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park for a brief stroll and a photo op, imagine the military might he could call out to handle protesters and counterprotesters drawn to a multiday convention?
He might not have taken kindly to the view, either, with “Black Lives Matter” painted — as in Washington — by artists in the street.
While many business owners are lamenting the potential loss, lawyers are already poring over contracts to craft a compromise of having business meetings in Charlotte and big speeches somewhere else — or not.
In a Wednesday statement, the city of Charlotte said: “The City Attorney and members of his staff have been meeting regularly with the legal representatives of the Republican National Committee and other parties to the convention agreements. The City of Charlotte remains willing to work in good faith to complete its contractual obligations under the terms of the two Convention agreements. The City has not been officially informed of the RNC’s intent to relocate the convention. Considering the media reports of the RNC’s apparent unilateral decision to relocate a substantial portion of the convention to Jacksonville, an immediate discussion with the RNC and our partners regarding contractual obligations and remedies resulting from this apparent decision is required.”
“The governor outlined what the state needs,” Charlotte City Council Member Malcolm Graham told me, conditions “that protect public health and protect public safety.” As for what GOP officials decide, Graham said, “My preference would be for them to comply with the directives, and if they won’t meet them, they should say so sooner rather than later.”
Considering the president’s record of bankruptcies and changing his mind, would any agreement be worth the paper it’s written on?
This is happening as officials with the White House Coronavirus Task Force are warning North Carolina that coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are trending in the wrong direction, and they question the state’s testing record.
How will it shake out politically, in a state Trump won in 2016 and where 15 electoral votes are at stake? An anticipated close Senate race between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham is also on the ballot. Much depends on coronavirus trends and the scenes from whatever city is lucky or unlucky enough to win this game of chicken.
Charlotte may have to settle for passing San Francisco to become the 15th-largest city in the country, though at least the city’s Democratic leaders can say they tried.
Trump, who has a notoriously short attention span, may have already moved on, leaving those around him to pick up the pieces and make the best of what was supposed to be a well-oiled convention machine.
And if it’s Jacksonville’s time in the spotlight, as reported in The Washington Post and as McDaniel seemed to be all but saying in a Wednesday radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, that Florida city can decide if it’s inherited a windfall or a colossal headache.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.